For a variety of reasons, Longfellow is rather out of style, and has been for most of the last century or so. I suspect that he is, like a number of artists in various media from his time, a victim of his own popularity. It does seem to be fashionable these days to reject any works that were popular with the general public, and certainly any that the American public of the Victorian era loved. Another factor may be that Longfellow wrote primarily long form poetry, which requires a greater time commitment than a short poem. Whatever the reason, it is a shame, as Longfellow is still enjoyable to read, so long as one approaches his works with an unjaded eye.
Evangeline was both one of his most popular works during his lifetime, and his most controversial. Longfellow chose to write the poem in dactylic hexameter (see note below), which is the meter used by Homer and others of the Greek and Roman eras. Some considered the more rigid form to be stilted and artificial, although Longfellow himself felt that the poem was so intricately connected with its form that it would have had to have been substantially altered to have been written any other way. I found the meter to be reasonably comfortable to read, if a bit unusual, but did not find that it detracted from the experience of the poem.
Evangeline is an Epic Poem; that is, a long narrative poem on a serious subject recording heroic deeds and events important to a people or nation. Longfellow tells the (fictional) tale of Evangeline and her lost love Gabriel as a means of personalizing a rather tragic event in the history of the embryonic United States. Since I was not familiar with the underlying events, I did a bit of research. Here is the basic gist. The Acadians were French settlors in the northeastern part of Canada during Colonial times. The British conquered them during the French and Indian War (remember that from grade school?), and transported the settlors from their homes and scattered them throughout what is now the southeastern United States. Reportedly, about one-third died by drowning or starvation. Many of the survivors settled in Louisiana and became the Cajuns. (The name “Cajun” is a corruption of “Acadian.”)
In this poem, the lovely Evangeline is the daughter of an Acadian farmer, betrothed to Gabriel, the blacksmith’s son. They are separated during the Acadian Expulsion, and she searches for him across America. They are finally reunited when they are both old, and he dies in her arms. This is, of course, a typically melodramatic plot common to the era, perhaps a bit foreign to our modern sensibilities. We either expect a happy resolution or an existentially dark ending where nothing has meaning. Instead, Longfellow sees the tragedy as transcendent. Evangeline and Gabriel are unable to consummate their love in this life, but their love and desire leads them to a hopeless, inspiring quest.
What I found most enjoyable about this poem was the beautiful descriptive language of the natural features of the land. The opening is classic and unforgettable:
THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
Another of my favorite sections describes the bayou as Evangeline and her companions search for signs of Gabriel.
They were approaching the region where reigns perpetual summer,
Where through the Golden Coast, and groves of orange and citron,
Sweeps with majestic curve the river away to the eastward.
They, too, swerved from their course; and, entering the Bayou of Plaquemine,
Soon were lost in a maze of sluggish and devious waters,
Which, like a network of steel, extended in every direction.
Over their heads the towering and tenebrous boughs of the cypress
Met in a dusky arch, and trailing mosses in mid-air
Waved like banners that hang on the walls of ancient cathedrals.
Deathlike the silence seemed, and unbroken, save by the herons
Home to their roosts in the cedar-trees returning at sunset,
Or by the owl, as he greeted the moon with demoniac laughter.
Lovely the moonlight was as it glanced and gleamed on the water,
Gleamed on the columns of cypress and cedar sustaining the arches,
Down through whose broken vaults it fell as through chinks in a ruin.
Dreamlike, and indistinct, and strange were all things around them;
And o'er their spirits there came a feeling of wonder and sadness --
Strange forebodings of ill, unseen and that cannot be compassed.
In many ways, this poem and others by Longfellow are an excellent initiation into the world of epic poetry. The language is familiar, and the words flow naturally. Even the tragic story is refreshing in its own way. How many now would sacrifice their lives for love these days? Is it a crazy idea? Perhaps, but I still find it inspiring in the same way that Penelope’s love for Odysseus was, or perhaps Dido’s passion for Aeneas. Read it without cynicism, and you might just find it moving.
Note on Dactylic Hexameter: I generally leave the explanation of poetic meter and form to a note, such as I did on the Sonnet form. However, since my readers vary greatly in knowledge and familiarity with poetic forms, I try to give a bit of an explanation.
The English language consists of accented and unaccented syllables. A poetic foot has one accented syllable. (As a general rule.) In this case, a “dactyl” has an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables. We call it a “triple meter” for this reason. Limericks are written in the other triple meter, “anapest.”
While the meter in this poem is called “dactylic hexameter,” it does not exclusively use the dactyl foot. Rather, it mixes trochaic feet (accented followed by a single unaccented) throughout the line, with the last foot (out of the six) always a trochee. To scan the line, note that there are always six accented syllables, with either one or two unaccented syllables following.
THIS is the FORest primEVal the MURmuring PINES and the HEMlocks,
BEARDed with MOSS, and in GARments GREEN, indisTINCT in the TWIlight,
Note on historical omissions and politics: Longfellow wrote this poem (and indeed many of his poems) to chronicle a uniquely American mythology. Older civilizations had their own myths, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey (Greek), the Aeneid (Roman), the Song of Roland (Holy Roman Empire), and the King Arthur legends (England). Longfellow attempted to do the same for the young United States. To a degree, he succeeded. The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Ride of Paul Revere, and The Song of Hiawatha are all embedded in our subconscious to a degree. However, unlike the ancients, his accounts are subject to fact checking in a way they never were.
In this case, Longfellow took the politically current point of view. We, the Americans, had defeated the British, and still distrusted them. The French, who had assisted us in our wars against the British, were our friends. Of course, we would later become staunch friends of the Brits, and begin to distrust the French. (“Freedom Fries,” anyone?) Likewise, during the French and Indian War, the colonists were on the side of the English, and were, in fact, proponents of the Acadian Expulsion. Longfellow, understandably, didn’t bother to mention this inconvenient fact.
Monument to the Acadians, St. Martinville, Louisiana.